The argumentative philanthropist: The generously curious citizen

What Matters

As recent events have shown with our political battle lines drawn, we have forgotten how to argue with each other in ways that allow us to discover and forge truths about the social spaces we share. 

There is nothing to guarantee that our arguments will lead to discovery and solidarity across difference, but if we continue as we are, we may never find out. Clearly, we are awash in opinions that enthrall us to difference and entrench division. But what may be worse than our antagonisms and polarization is that we are not really arguing; we are engaged in battles of contradictory affirmations.

A philanthropic lens suggests that we should surrender some certainty and share in discovery to build useful arguments about our civic future.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, an argument is “a statement or fact advanced for the purpose of influencing the mind; a reason urged in support of a proposition.” I place myself willingly in a position and adopt a disposition where I am prepared to have my mind influenced by you. In turn, by formulating my argument and sharing it with you, I am not only seeking to influence you, but I am coming to know my own mind better, refining my view of how we are connected with each other and numerous others in a shared civic space. 

I think this describes the ideal of a deliberative democracy in which we are all positioned as equals equipped with the capacity and the right to engage in civic discourse and, yes, argument. To deliberate in a democracy is to think together. An ideal participant is someone I would call an argumentative philanthropist.

The Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen wrote The Argumentative Indian to illustrate the essential role of clashing and colliding arguments in the world’s largest democracy. Even in war, short of genocide where the objective is straightforward extermination, the resort to violence, as Carl von Clausewitz contended, is the continuation of politics by others meansorganized violence is still being used to communicate with one’s adversary.

Even for the most cynical observer, the use of force that does not change minds can end up exhausting those applying the force. 

A world without argument or intellectual curiosity would be a dark place. In a place where all agree or are forced to agree, there is little space to reconsider, challenge, to think anew. Though such places are becoming more common in many countries around the world, we should also worry about a process of contention where not enough of us bring the light of generosity and are not willing to engage our own minds and those of others, where we routinely deprive our adversaries and ourselves of the benefit of the doubt.

Such a place of “mindless” battle may not be as overwhelmingly frightening as enforced totalitarian uniformity. Still, we are diminished when we are mired in a mindless cacophony where all opinions are noise to those outside the tribe that issues them.

Much of the general public’s newfound scrutiny of philanthropy has focused on what happens “after wealth,” on people with plenty and fortune and what impact they have on our civic lives and the ideal of democracy. There are some fundamental arguments to be had here, though there is also plenty of mindless affirmation of certainties.

We are fortunate to have a diversity of views represented in recent and upcoming events at the school as we discuss the current state of philanthropy with Elise Westhoff, president of the Philanthropy Roundtable, and Lucy Bernholz, director of the Digital Society Lab at Stanford. They present compelling and contrasting visions of what philanthropy “after wealth” should look like.

However, philanthropy also happens “before wealth.” You might even see its role in building the conditions for wealth to emerge, not to mention the civic institutions that allow us to thrive and live well. This is the vision of generous and curious citizenship that allows for a dialogue to generate collective knowledge and open inquiry.

Influential thinkers, ranging from the founders of what is now called neoliberalism to George Soros, have called this an “open society.” And for it to succeed, it needs open minds who are generous to each other. 

Scholars and observers often refer to “expressive philanthropy” to capture the ways we voice interests and ideas, often in contrast to the instrumental function of philanthropy that is focused on outcomes and impact. Yet, when we generate arguments that change minds and perspectives, we create an effect not only on others but ourselves as well. 

The argumentative philanthropist does more than express their position, their view, and their commitment. They put forward “a statement or fact with the purpose of influencing the mind,” among the most profound civic outcomes we can have. In the process, they engage in a genuine dialogue that leaves those who participate thinking and being together differently.

I think of fundamental changes in perspectives on race, gender, youth, and sexual orientation and how voluntary movements and argumentative philanthropists changed our collective views of fundamental aspects of our shared civic life. 

Whatever awaits us in what remains of the pandemic and the adjustments and responses that ensue, I look forward to engaging argumentative philanthropists to help me make sense of how we can and should be together in the world that emerges.

Best regards,

Dean Amir Pasic

Amir Pasic
Eugene R. Tempel Dean

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